Alan Bennett on ‘Smut’


At Work

If Alan Bennett needs any introduction at all, I would need more than a paragraph in which to write it. I would start by explaining how, in the early 1960s, he formed the comic revue Beyond the Fringe, along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller. I would go on to describe his subsequent half-century of writing for television and the stage, which has included such hugely successful plays as Forty Years On, The Madness of George III, and The History Boys. Perhaps I would round things off by suggesting that he has provided the most authoritative introduction to his own writing life through his wry, tender, autobiographical writings, collected in Writing Home and Untold Stories. His latest book, Smut, includes two long stories, the first of which, “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” concerns a formerly staid widower whose life is changed by some adventurous student lodgers. Meanwhile, The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes describes an intergenerational family romp that is set in motion by the marriage of attractive, vain, and gay Graham Forbes to the outwardly plain Betty, who nonetheless harbors secrets of her own. To find out whether this book represents the sort of “holiday from respectability” that his protagonists take, I talked to him over the phone last Friday morning.

Were these two stories conceived as a pair?

No. Most of the short stories I’ve written have started off because they wouldn’t turn into plays, and certainly the first one in this book, “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” has quite a theatrical beginning. The other one probably dates back further. I wrote a play called Habeas Corpus and it’s a bit in that style. It’s a farce and not a realistic story. I think the notion, particularly in the first story, of somebody breaking out, like Mrs. Donaldson, who is breaking out after a fairly humdrum life, keeps recurring.

There are one or two moments where the narrator addresses the reader in both stories. Did you feel there were liberties you could take in the short-story form that you couldn’t take on the stage?

I always like to break out and address the audience. In The History Boys, for instance, without any ado, the boys will suddenly turn and talk to the audience and then go back into the action. I find it more adventurous doing it in prose than on the stage, but I like being able to make the reader suddenly sit up.

Your title, Smut, is a very English word, and something I associate more with the North of England, where you are from.

It’s a genteel way of saying filth, really, isn’t it?

Was it a word you’d heard said a lot?

No. One reason I wrote these two stories was to outflank my fans, or those of my readers who expect me to write a certain kind of thing. Sometimes, like Mrs. Donaldson, you just want to break out. You don’t want to shock them, quite, but you do want to surprise them. It’s about not wanting to be thought of as cozy.

You have written about sex before though. You mentioned Habeas Corpus, but it’s there in The History Boys too, and Kafka’s Dick is, as the title suggests, about the body. Do you think people neglect that side of your writing?

I always feel overappreciated but underestimated. I can’t complain that I’ve had a public all through my writing life, but people don’t quite know what I’ve written. People don’t read you too closely. Perhaps, after I’ve died, they’ll look at my stuff, and read it through, and find there’s more in it. That may be wrong, but that’s what I comfort myself with.

You’ve had such an unusual writing life. There are the diaries, the reminiscences, the stories, as well as your writing for the stage and television.

I think in England they like you to do the same thing, but with a slight variation—but the same thing again and again. They don’t like you to be too diverse. Also, there’s something that’s said in The Habit of Art that, at this stage in life, your public just wants you to finish. They want you to put the cork in the bottle. They just want to have you on their shelves, complete. They don’t want you to keep on having another go. They don’t want to keep adjusting. That’s said about Auden and Britten, but I think it’s true of any writer who’s getting on. It’s chastening, but it’s a fact of life.

This makes me think of The Uncommon Reader where the Queen discovers reading and it goes against what her public expects. Is that about wanting to resist one’s reputation?

It’s about wanting not to be put in a box, to be put in someone’s pocket. I only—I’ve never liked the phrase—came out, as it were, about being gay quite late. But I think the reason I didn’t do it earlier was because I didn’t want to be put in that box either.

The reverse of this is also true because writers who do write about sex fearlessly end up being defined by it.

You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Are there any writers you admire for their writing about sex?

Well, I always think Philip Roth is very good, but, of course, he gets criticized for always fetching it in. But his style is so good and so delicate that he can write about very intimate sexual stuff and the style insulates you against it. It takes any revulsion out of it, because he writes about it so beautifully. I think that probably Americans do that better than we do. It may be because they’ve been filtered through Henry James, because they’re certainly more forensic, or more delicate about it, than English writers are.

It’s interesting that you mention Henry James because The Master was not known for his own friskiness.

Oh no!

In the second story, “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” you say that Graham, a character who is not so secretly gay, finds marital sex a “felonious pleasure.”

I think that’s true, psychologically true, though it’s more theoretical in my experience. Graham feels that he wants to embrace risk, but doesn’t actually want to.

The woman he marries, Betty, is described as being distinctly plain. There’s a tradition of plain characters in fiction surprising other characters, as well as the reader. I think of Mary Garth in Middlemarch and Jane Eyre, of course.

I don’t associate plainness with virtue, and that becomes obvious with Betty, who, although she’s very straightforward and honest, is not particularly morally attractive. When you realize Betty’s having an affair with Graham’s father, well, that would be difficult to do on the stage. On the stage, you’d have to do more setting it up, and so it would be a bit more complicated. But I relished the freedom of being able to just put her into bed with Graham’s father, the ease with which you can do this sort of thing with prose.

I did find myself noting in the margins of the book, “it’s always the quiet ones.”

Yes, put that on the cover!

Do you think these could be considered love stories in any way?

Yes. “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” could certainly be a love story, and a story of a reasonably successful marriage. Full-blooded romantic love I wouldn’t be able to write about. Generally, an element of pathos comes into it when I’m writing about love.

When Graham’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Forbes, dance at the wedding, and everyone is surprised at how good a dancer Mr. Forbes is, well, it would have been very difficult for you to dramatize that he is in fact whispering obscenities to his wife. Language seems to be a concern in these stories, and how things are or are not said. Did you enjoy writing scenes like that?

I thought it was quite a risky scene. I thought it might make people cringe. But somehow cocooning it in him being slightly drunk, and in him being a very good dancer, I thought I’d get away with it. I always find it quite risky to be too vernacular, I suppose. It’s an area where I tread rather gingerly.

You’ve recently written about the plight of libraries here in Britain, which have been threatened with closure as a government austerity measure. What is at stake?

Here, in Primrose Hill, around the corner, is the Chalk Farm Library, which I go by virtually every day. After school in the afternoon, it’s always full of children, and they’re mostly not middle-class, they’re from the high-rise flats, and a lot of them are Somali children. The library for them is as much a lifeline as it was for me fifty or sixty years ago. A library is not simply the books and the computers and the resources, but it’s actually a place where there aren’t four or five conversations going on. It’s a place where children can read and be on their own, and that’s invaluable. But they want to turn our library into some sort of retail outlet. In fifteen or twenty years’ time, they’ll be complaining about rioting youths, and it’ll be a result of the decisions they’re making now. Anyway, I’m a bore on the subject.

Not at all.

I bother less about boring people than about being an old git. But then I suppose that the essence of being an old git is that you don’t bother about it.